What must the white supremacists who longed for a homeland in the Inland Northwest have made of South African President F.W. de Klerk?
Here was the leader of a white-ruled homeland in Africa opening prison doors in 1990 and releasing Nelson Mandela, the former African National Congress revolutionary who would, unquestionably, become his successor in an open election.
What could motivate such a betrayal of the Afrikaners who had ruled South Africa absolutely since the 1948 declaration of apartheid, the official state subjugation of the majority black population? There were gasps in the parliament when he announced the end to sanctions against the ANC and other parties and boos from the far-right supporters of his government.
De Klerk, in interviews following Mandela’s death Thursday, recalled their first meeting and the sense of dignity and authority of a man imprisoned for 27 years.
“He was ramrod straight,” said de Klerk, who shared the 1993 Nobel Peace Prize with Mandela. “My gut reaction was ‘I like this man’ .”
As did hundreds of millions of Mandela admirers mourning his death at age 95. During his long imprisonment, Mandela morphed from revolutionary to conciliator, but not one who had lost his zeal for righting the wrongs done black and brown South Africans for decades extending long before 1948.
His example, and those of others like Steve Biko, who was killed by police in 1977, and Bishop Desmond Tutu, the 1984 Nobel Prize winner and 2012 commencement speaker at Gonzaga University, exposed apartheid’s evils to the world. International sanctions finally brought enough pressure on a white minority that abandoned an immoral, untenable perch.
Mandela chose not to hide the outrages committed under apartheid. A commission aired offenses by whites and blacks. But Mandela did not let the harsh findings ruin his efforts to build a political and economic system with justice for all.
Mandela made mistakes: He dismissed, for example, the threat of AIDS when early intervention might have slowed the affliction’s progress throughout southern Africa. Economic inequities persist to this day.
De Klerk, from the sidelines, has witnessed Mandela’s ascendance.
“I think his greatest legacy to South Africa and to the world is the emphasis which he has always put on the need for reconciliation, on the importance of human rights,” the former president said. “He was a man of great integrity.”
The Inland Northwest’s supremacists – the Aryan Nations, the Ku Klux Klan, The Order, assorted skinheads and other losers – never awakened to the forces that brought de Klerk to his historic meeting with Mandela, nor the call for justice from Martin Luther King Jr. and others in the United States.
They thought they could flee. Instead, they were overtaken by the Northwest Coalition Against Malicious Harassment and other groups and individuals who rejected their ideology of separation and hate. They slinked into history’s dustbin, while Mandela became a man for the ages.